Breaking into Breakaway: Rodeo’s Gateway Sport

Breakaway roping has officially broken into the ranks of rodeo’s most popular events and more people than ever before are wondering, “How does one start to breakaway, anyway?”

Breaking Into Breakaway: Rodeo’s Gateway Sport
TRJ File Photo

Arguably, up until Madison Outhier’s $100,000 win at The American in February 2019, the general consensus was that, if women wanted to be in rodeo, they could either run barrels or they could run for rodeo queen. Well, the general consensus has been turned on its head in recent years and, suddenly, not only is breakaway roping an option, but if they team rope, too, so is being an all-around competitor. But for many, the question remains: Where do I start?

Young and … less young

The desire to enter into breakaway roping right now is pretty universal, regardless of age and, often, gender. As noted by Larry Garner, a sales consultant in the Western industry for companies such as Spalding Laboratories Fly Predators and 5Star Equine Products, the growth and popularity of the sport is completely unprecedented.

If you’ve got a young’un, entry into rodeo is a little more obvious and remains pretty consistent with practices of the past. Organizations such as the National Little Britches Rodeo Association cater to kids from 5 years old to 18 and, with rodeos sanctioned in 33 different states, offer a lot of opportunity to compete.

WPRA Breakaway Roping World Champion Jackie Crawford demonstrates delivery mechanics at her 2020 clinic in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Kaitlin Gustave Photo

“We sponsored a clinic for breakaway roping with Jackie Crawford down in Pueblo, Colorado, and it was very well attended, not only by little boys, but little girls as well. And some older boys and girls, too,” Garner said. “There was one little girl who had never touched a rope. The next year, her father told me at the Little Britches National Finals, ‘My little girl came to a clinic last year and saw Hope [Thompson] and Lari Dee [Guy] rope and thought that would be cool.’ Well, they went home, bought a dummy, bought a rope to practice, bought a horse, and she’s back at the finals of the Little Britches for her age group.”

The Breakaway Roping Gear Guide

But, in addition to the kids coming up in rodeo who are seeing breakaway from the get-go, there are other sets of competitors looking to play, too.

NFR competitors Mike and Sherrylynn Johnson have coached at the college and clinic level and are a few years into producing the Vegas Tuffest Jr. Team Roping and the Bright Lights 3D Breakaway, both of which are scheduled to be held in Las Vegas during the NFR. They’ve seen countless girls grow up in and around rodeo over the years and are witnessing some of them, now women, find their niche.

“Everything has gotten super popular,”
Mike explained, “and you’ve got girls like
the Cooper girl, Jill Cooper (now Jill Tanner).
I’ve watched her [hit the road] with
the team ropers and watch for years. Now,
she’s winning big money and no one even
knew she knew how to rope. There’s thousands
of them that are out there and it’s
given them an opportunity.”

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“That’s kind of like the wives’ side of
it,” Sherrylynn continued. “They were
just there to hold the camera, right? And
now, they have a chance to do something
with their husband. Same with Robin
Montague. It just gives them another way
of being a part of it, instead of just being
a cheerleader.”

Carole Hollers, identified by The Breakaway Roping Journal as one of 10 Breakaway Benefactors long before The American, has been a clinician for nearly three decades but, in the past year, was asked to host a new kind of clinic.

“We were at the bar, this spring, at a Sturgis High School Rodeo deal,” Hollers said, “and my friends were a little ahead of me with the beer and they started saying, ‘Let’s just do one for us old girls. When are you going to help us?’”

Before the end of the night, as more people joined in on the ask, Hollers resolved to take the idea to her clinician partners, Jerry and Zeann Golliher, who host the clinics at the barn in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Word got out.

“Before we even advertised, we had 16 signed up,” Hollers said. “And I had seven on a waiting list. So we added a second clinic and never advertised for either one of them and the second clinic filled up, as well. A lot of the ladies were looking at the Pink and Ruby Buckles, you know, and just looking to do something different with their horse.”

The clinic was hosted after the four regularly scheduled clinics, so the cattle were good and slow, and the day was cut in half to accommodate busy grownup lives and not-as-youthful metabolisms.

“A few of the ladies had never roped. And, most of them, it’s been at least 20 years or so. Gosh, it was just fun.”

Necessary Tools

There are a few must-haves in breakaway roping: a horse and cattle, for instance. On the surface, the need for them can appear to be a significant barrier to entry.

In the cattle department, a first-time approach can be remedied easily with a roping dummy (it’s also the for-sure recommendation for new ropers). At a clinic hosted by NFR Breakaway Champion Jackie Crawford in Cheyenne, Wyoming, last July, she demonstrated no less than a dozen different ways to rope the dummy—from the ground, standing on a hay bale, straddling a stack of bales, from the left, from the right, on top of the dummy, reaching for it. The list goes on.

Just this spring, as Crawford prepared to re-enter the arena after delivering her daughter, she shared a picture of her roping the dummy while strengthening her core on a balance ball. There are endless skills to be learned roping the dummy—all of them applicable from atop your horse chasing live cattle.

Eventually, live cattle become a necessary tool, too, but between them and the roping dummy, there’s a world of choices, including the roping sled and, often, community organizations. With the growth in the sport, the chance to jackpot for fun and practice is becoming a viable option these days.

“Believe it or not,” Garner started, “some of these girls are practicing at events. You know, they’re entering jackpots and that’s where they’re getting their cattle practice. There used to not be a lot of jackpots. There used to be the big ropings and that was it.”

Hollers and the Johnsons all see a lot of potential in the development of more breakaway ropings being offered in the same way barrel racing has 3D and 4D divisions and so on and how team roping has its Global Handicaps system.

“We’re having a 3D Bright Lights Breakaway after our Tuffest event in Las Vegas and that’s one of the main reasons we’re doing that,” Sherrylynn explained. “It even has a sidepot for our 12-and-under [competitors] in it and a sidepot for 55-and-over [competitors]. We have some women coming for that, and they wouldn’t have entered if we hadn’t had the sidepots.”

So, there’s things to rope and, increasingly,
places to rope at all levels, which leaves the vehicle for roping—the horse.

Hollers and Golliher offer a ground clinic to their kids to get the foundations in place but, inevitably, a roper will need a horse. As Sherrylynn explains it, though, there’s really never been a better time to find breakaway horses.

“What’s super cool, Mike and I have said is, there’s a spot for the older horse, now. The horse that the tie-down roper had, that stopped working a little rope, you know? He couldn’t pull as hard, maybe his hocks are sore. That type of thing. He’s gotten older, and he’s the perfect breakaway horse. And so those [horses] don’t cost them as much.”

Crawford provides coaching on live calves in her clinics, too.

Kaitlin Gustave Photo

The Breakaway Gateway

In this way, it turns out, that breakaway roping may actually be the gateway sport that kids and women didn’t know they were missing. Not only do good and viable horses exist at something other than top dollar, but that horse also makes the roper a more versatile competitor, according to Sherrylynn.

“Barrel horses are so expensive and, if a barrel horse goes out, [the rider] is out, and that’s kind of difficult, especially going to college. I coached the rodeo team several years ago at Southern Arkansas and, I can tell you that, [with] my barrel racer, if she didn’t do something else, it was difficult for me to put her on the team. It’s great if she’s doing good, but if that horse comes up lame, then what? With a breakaway roper, I can put her on another good horse.”

Hollers has seen the good horse in action recently, too. With the exponential growth of recreational roping at all levels, has come the availability of horses trained to track cattle.

“When we first started this, it sucked, basically,” Hollers said, thinking of the students who were trying to learn to rope on horses that didn’t know how to be a rope horse. “They would say, ‘Well, he’s an old ranch horse and he’s been roped on a lot.” But they’d never been in an arena. Horsepower used to be a horrible problem. Now, the kids that are coming to these clinics today, the majority of them, their parents rope, so they are just on such great horses, such appropriate horses for their age.”

What Makes a Good One: Physical Characteristics of a Great Breakaway Horse

More than anything, though, Hollers likes to keep her students of all ages focused on all the successes that happen between roping the ground dummy and winning a check.

“We have a real reputation for the First Catch Ever,” she said. “We give them a victory lap if it’s their first catch ever. We did the same for the ladies, too. It’s just a little victory lap, but you never get that first one back.”

So, that’s where you start: with a first catch and a victory lap. BRJ is coming soon! Want to stay in the know? Sign up for the latest information from The Breakaway Roping Journal,

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